The big question I have about virtual worlds applications in schools is whether they are really necessary. Compared to other approaches, including online games that do *not* involve worlds, virtual worlds are, as far as I can tell, more expensive to develop, more difficult to get into and use, more expensive to repurpose, and more difficult to deploy in many environments. And the research results I'm seeing here are, I can vouch, no better than at least some other educational games out there that do not involve the expense and difficulties of worlds. I'm not saying Dimension M isn't on to something and that their work doesn't deserve both examination and praise, but the challenge I would put out to all educational worlds developers is: show us something that delivers educational value that couldn't be delivered via a non-worlds approach, something that really *requires* a virtual world to work. So in this case, how are algebraic concepts put across in ways in this world that they couldn't be put across in a non-worlds-based game or other form of learning? Does anyone who has used it know the answer to this question?
Tom, you may be right, but it's possible a collection or collective of organizations, each taking on different areas of the curriculum, could collectively produce a worlds-based approach to the entire range of subject areas. For example, Florida's Virtual High School just announced a virtual world-based course on American History called Conspiracy Code that is supposed to cover an entire year's worth of American History curriculum, with the promise that additional modules are being developed to cover even more of the history curriculum.
I'm glad to hear that more worlds-based approaches are making it into the field, but at this point we've theoretically got one year out of twelve in math covered (by Dimension M) and one year out of twelve covered in History (by Florida Virtual High School). Neither has been widely adopted by schools, probably for one or more of the reasons I cited in my original post. So I feel like my question still remains: are virtual worlds really the most efficient and effective game-based approach to delivering K-12 content, or would it be better to create a large number of simpler games, each specifically adapted to what they are covering, than to continue to try and create virtual worlds to cover the same content?My sense is that the companies or organizations already in the field think they are going to be able to pour the same wine into new bottles to cover year after year of curriculum, that kids who loved Conspiracy Code: US History are going to want to play Conspiracy Code: European History, then play Conspiracy Code: [Insert State Name Here] History, etc. There's certainly some precedent for that, in the sense that some percentage of people who buy Guitar Hero buy Guitar Hero II and some portion of people who buy Grand Theft Auto buy Grand Theft Auto II (does anyone know these percentages?), but I hope they don't make the mistake of thinking that it's just a matter of slapping new content into the same framework. Guitar Hero II and Grand Theft Auto II didn't just involve new content, but substantial--and costly--upgrades in functionality to get users to adopt them, as have subsequent titles in these series. And in the case of a subject like mathematics, I'm not convinced that the same game format that's used for algebra *should* be used for a subject like geometry or calculus--there could be a better, completely different game format to best teach those subjects. Of course once you get into trying to optimize a worlds-based approach to specific content areas, you run the risk of, for example, spending $1M+ creating a worlds-based game to teach one part of one amendment of the Constitution (believe it or not, this is being done). At that point, smaller, simpler games really start to sound appealing ;)
You're right about the extra expense/difficulty/challenge of creating virtual worlds -- and the lack of results so far. Actually, I'm thinking this VW process is part of the larger phenomenon of social media and social networks -- where a generation (or some parts of it) will expect to experience "life" through online communitieis -- and virtual worlds are one implementation of those networks. Hence, the juxtaposition of social networks and virtual worlds will encourage a self-formed group to explore new realms together -- moderated by (guided by) software developers who create a framework for such "adventures.
I was just reading Richard Nisbett's "Intelligence and How To Get It" and he makes an interesting point about games and education. Tom, I agree with you that worlds-based games often don't seem to be very efficient educational vehicles--there seems to be an awful lot of mindless trudging around time in them, for example--but Nisbett makes the point that IQ has been rising about 4 points every decade since about 1900, and that most of this gain has been coming in what's called "fluid intelligence," which is the brain's ability to respond appropriately to novel situations. Nisbett identifies computers in general, and computer games in particular, as the likely source for a lot of recent gains in fluid intelligence, and I would think that worlds-based games seem likely to be the greatest source of all for this, since they require a lot of rapid reaction to novel stimuli, sometimes even when all you seem to be doing is trudging about. This doesn't mean that they're necessarily the most efficient vehicle for achieving all educational goals (e.g. those intended to raise what's called "crystallized (or knowledge-based) intelligence," but it does indicate that there may be more education going on (of a positive nature) than meets the eye.
I was speaking recently about Dimension M Games and related matters with a long-time member of our community, Marc Prensky, who is one of the leading thinkers and creators where educational games/interactivity are concerned, and he made a number of very interesting observations.
First of all, one thing he really likes about Dimension M is that it truly starts from where kids are and then weaves the mathematics into it. He points out that many leading thinkers both inside and outside of education are coming to the conclusion that education needs to become passion-based, where we start from each child's particular interests from a very early age, and build a curriculum for them around those interests. I agree--it's more than a little disappointing that with all the technology and content we have available to deliver truly personalized education, we're still pushing one size fits all, especially to a generation that has an alternative education system available to them (the Internet) and is increasingly tuning out the traditional one as a result. It seems to me there's no concept we believe is universally important (citizenship, writing, basic math, basic science, environmental awareness, etc.) that can't be fairly automatically integrated into any and every individualized passion-based curriculum, and at least some of the best teachers in underserved communities have been dreaming of such an approach for quite some time. There are dangers, to be sure--poor kids being pressured into finding their passion in the vocations society has designated for them and, more generally, kids being compelled to decide what their interests are before they are ready (or can be realistic about their chances), but as long as we are aware of those potential pitfalls going in, they seem manageable and still very preferable to those of the current system.
On the flip side, Marc feels the claims for Dimension M have been overstated in key respects, that Dimension M doesn't really teach math, it *reviews, reinforces, and tests* math, at a time when what we're really looking for is new ways to teach these subjects, not just new versions of Jeopardy (in this case, Jeopardy in the form of a virtual world). To be fair, he acknowledges what's being asked for is very hard--no less than Maxis (SimCity, Sims) co-founder Will Wright has concluded it's extremely difficult to create a game that is both truly fully educational (meaning that it teaches, not just reviews) and, at the same time, fully competitive in entertainment value with commercial games (an opinion that Maxis co-founder Jeff Braun also expressed at our initial meeting). One conclusion to draw from this, as Marc does, is that games can't be viewed as an educational panacea, but must be viewed as only one quiver in the bow. Personally, I've been thinking that in many cases education practitioners should be thinking about how to add (or slip in) educational value into existing commercial offerings (I think there are a lot of creative ways to do this) rather than trying to create games from whole cloth to meet every educational goal, although I still believe there are people out there--like Marc--capable of cracking that nut and meeting the Maxis challenge.
In any case, when the nut does get cracked, it needs to be cracked in a big way. As Jeffrey Moore points out in Crossing the Chasm, for a niche like educational gaming to break out beyond early adoption into the mainstream, it needs to deliver "complete products." What does that mean in this context? According to Marc, it means delivering gaming experiences that cross curricula, it means gaming environments that kids can turn to no matter what they need to learn, as opposed to the current environment where there are only a few very successful educational games that touch only a small fraction of any curriculum. To which I say amen, brother. In my capacity as principal analyst for Grunwald Associates, I regularly test "new concepts" with parents, kids, and educators to get a sense of the current appetite for innovation. In all of our years of testing, no "new concept" has ever tested higher with parents and kids (combined) than "a place where I can find a game to help me with every homework assignment.
I am a parent of one of the players to the Dimension U/M program now grant it I'm not a scholar compared to you. I do believe in this program I have seen so much improvement in my sons grades and attitude after playing Dimension U/M. When my son was in the 6th grade his grades were less than great but after playing over the summer of 2009-now he is a High Honor roll student. His attitude has improved so much and now he has high expectations in himself. He is now trying to get into a IB Program and wants to be a civil engineer when he grows up. Now you might not think that this program is all that but to a kid trying to find himself during his middle school years which we all know can be very hard sometimes this is a positive outlet. Poor kids can go to their local Library and do Dimension U/M for FREE and win computers, TV's and scholarships for College now it might not be the best math game that you've played but it gives encouragement to those who didn't think they had a chance here in the real world now it does I saw it make a huge change in my son and others. Thank you for letting me express my opinion as a parent who believes that things like this can change for the good whether you believe in it or not.